Beginning in 1984, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints established areas to direct the work in geographic locations. There are currently 22 areas in the Church — six that span the United States and Canada, with 16 more outside those two countries.
The Church’s Utah Area serves more Latter-day Saints than any other area and geographically includes Salt Lake City and Church headquarters. Elder Craig C. Christensen, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Utah Area, has observed over many years of full-time Church service how the global Church has influenced the Utah Area and how the Utah Area influences the other 21 areas worldwide.
Elder Christensen, joined by Scott Taylor of the Church News, is featured in this episode of the Church News podcast. Along with podcast host Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News, they discuss serving the large number of Latter-day Saints who live in the Church’s Utah Area and the challenges of directing that area during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question: “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast, and this is what I know now.”
We are thrilled today to welcome Elder Craig C. Christensen, a General Authority Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to the Church News podcast. Elder Christensen was born in Salt Lake City. He and his wife, Debbie, are the parents of four children. Elder Christensen graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He also has a Masters of Business Administration degree from the University of Washington. At the time of his call as a General Authority in 2002, Elder Christensen was a self-employed businessman in the retail automotive, insurance and real estate development industries. Elder Christensen was named president of the Utah Area on Aug. 1, 2018. He had previously served as a member of the Presidency of the Seventy from 2012 to 2018, with supervisory responsibilities in various areas of the Church.
Today, he is joined by Scott Taylor of the Church News. Scott has been a reporter for the Deseret News and Church News since 1985. We’re excited to talk with both of them about all that has occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, what the Church learns from the Utah Area and what the Utah Area represents in a broader way for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Welcome, Elder Christensen and Scott, to the Church News podcast.
Scott Taylor: Thank you. Elder Christensen, thanks for joining us. So, you and I spoke a couple of months ago about the possibility of talking about areas in the Church, and you are quite the expert, having presided over the Mexico Area and your assignment in the Presidency of the Seventy included oversight of the areas at the time too. You’ve serve as the president of the Utah area for a number of years and have an upcoming assignment down with the South America South Area. Let’s start off: What is a Church area?
Elder Craig C. Christensen: Scott, the areas of the Church are really administratively driven. They’re not formed for any scriptural or ecclesiastical reason. It’s a way that we’ve managed, in a kind of a decentralized way, areas around the world. The Church is operating in countries throughout the world, and area presidencies have been formed to supervise, in a local way, the work of the Church, as well as interacting with mission presidents and their companions, mission leaders, stake presidents and others. So we currently have, I believe, 16 international areas, and they have been consolidated down to six areas in the United States and Canada.
Scott Taylor: I remember when I was a stake president, there were three areas in Utah alone, and now there’s just one, and that’s quite a bit. We’ll talk about the Utah area specifically in a moment. Let’s talk about the differences between a North America area and international areas, how they are administered and functions and responsibilities and oversight, if you will.
Elder Craig C. Christensen: Part of the interest there might be that areas were formed originally in about 1984. Before that, we had area supervisors that lived in the country, but they didn’t have formal areas. In 2003, President Hinckley announced that the domestic areas, we call them for the United States and Canada, would be eliminated and all that work would be supervised by the Presidency of the Seventy. What really happened, as they kept areas, they actually expanded them and that’s why Utah had three areas, as we had an existing structure. In 2018, when I was called as the Utah Area President, we still had three areas, although I was, even before that, supervising all three of them. And for just consolidation reasons, they formed them in, I think, 2019, they announced it would be the Utah Area, just one area. It’s the largest area in the church, with 628 stakes this week, and over 2 million members. Although we’re 13% of the worldwide population of the Church, membership of the Church, on any Sunday, about a fourth of the Church attends church pre-COVID. In Utah, it’s actually gone up with virtual church, because we’re getting more numbers that are attending now virtually than we had in person.
Scott Taylor: The areas quite often will follow state and international boundaries, for matters of convenience. That’s not necessarily the case with the Utah area. Tell me about the footprint.
Elder Craig C. Christensen: All the areas in the domestic church look at population centers, so they’re not state-driven. They’re more ecclesiastically-lined and Church-driven. So the Utah area goes into Idaho, Preston and Malad, it goes into Wyoming, all the way up to Kemmerer and even into Rock Springs. It goes south, but we don’t have all of Utah, we don’t have Monticello and the Four Corners area. That’s more associated, Church-wise, with New Mexico and that part of the region. We go into Arizona, we have a little bit of Nevada. So really, if you looked at a footprint, it’s most of Utah, but it also includes some of the surrounding centers for the Church.
Scott Taylor: So prior to serving in the Presidency of the Seventy, you presided over the Mexico Area. And then, as you mentioned, when you were a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, you had responsibility over areas in North America. Then, that division came later with the Presidency of the Seventy, moving away from area oversight. About the same time, you took over responsibilities for the Utah Area. What has been the difference you’ve seen in area supervision and area responsibility, from those different time periods: Mexico to Presidency (of the Seventy) to Utah and now moving into 2021 and your responsibilities in South America?
Elder Craig C. Christensen: So, the senior leaders, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, are treating domestic areas equally as they would treat international areas. Being in Utah, it has been quite interesting. Members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve would participate quite often in local events. And the sentiment now is, when they’re asked, they’ll say, “One, we’re a global church. And two, we have an area presidency in Utah.” So they’re trying to recognize more openly the fact that we have domestic areas.
Because we’re at the headquarters of the Church, there’s still a lot of involvement by senior leaders in everything we do. But the intent or the desire is that the domestic areas function under the same ecclesiastical pattern that we’ve learned internationally. The bigger difference is more administrative. If you were to visit the Mexico City area office, all of the Church employee functions that are in Salt Lake have been duplicated in Mexico. But we don’t have to do that domestically, we can rely on the departments of the Church. So I do not have a membership and records department, or I don’t have a legal department, I don’t have public affairs. Those are all done by Church headquarter departments. We can focus on the ecclesiastical work of the Church — that’s really the big difference.
Scott Taylor: Tell me about area presidencies, how they are formed or who participates in area presidencies both domestically and internationally, there are little deviations in a couple of international areas. And then, after that, talk about the oversight from the Presidency of the Seventy and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Elder Craig C. Christensen: Wonderful question. Most people will relate to this analogy, but we have missionaries throughout the world, and some of them are assigned to be zone leaders or district leaders or sister training leaders. Those are assignments. They’re still missionaries. Well, we have General Authorities and Area Seventies throughout the world, and that’s our calling, but we’re assigned, at times, to serve in area presidencies. So once a year, they make an assignment change. The tenure of an area presidency member might be two or three or four years. But once a year, we’re rotated and moved by assignment, almost like a missionary being transferred to serve in one specific role or another. The assignments come in April every year, and we have our transfers, if you will, in August, and that’s how area presidencies are formed.
And so we have two Area Seventies serving in area presidencies. Those are unique situations. One is in Europe East, which would be Russia, and he’s a Russian citizen. The other one is the Middle East Area Presidency. We call Area Seventies who have quite a bit of familiarity with that part of the world. Sometimes they live there. Sometimes it’s just because of their knowledge base.
So they’re unique situations. Most of the time, area presidency members are full-time — with their wives, Church service, consecrated, go anywhere they’re asked to go and they serve until they’re given emeritus status.
Scott Taylor: And not just restricted to the area, because we’ve talked, while you’ve presided over the Utah area, you’ve had assignments come from the president of the Quorum of the Twelve to go do mission tours in Mexico, for example, things like that. So it’s not just restricted to the one area.
Elder Craig C. Christensen: Most of the time it’s concentrated, I wouldn’t say restricted, but it’s concentrated. We do whatever we’re assigned to do. So they might be unique, but it’s concentrated in that area, because area presidencies need to know exactly what’s going on in their area. So they spend most of their time focused on one particular area.
Scott Taylor: How has your Mexico experiences differed from Utah? What’s one of your takeaways from your Mexico experience?
Elder Craig C. Christensen: So there’s a proximity issue there, in that when you’re in an area, long distance from those that supervise the work, from those that are involved, you feel a responsibility. You still try and do everything that is expected of you, but it’s a little bit more “boots on the ground,” do whatever is needed. If there’s a problem, you jump on a plane and go solve it. You’re active in the area, you set the vision for that area, you interact with the people.
Being concentrated in the United States and Canada so close to the senior leaders, they set the vision for our area, and they’re more involved in what we do every day. You ask about supervision. The Presidency of the Seventy, because we’re all Seventy, preside over our work. So we report — I report to a member of the Presidency of the Seventy in the Utah area, as well as to a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the assigned member. Because it’s Utah, my relationship there is much more direct with the members of the Twelve and the First Presidency than they would be otherwise. Once again, we’re talking about 25% of the active Church is here in Utah. So, there’s quite a bit of interaction with senior leaders as it relates to Utah.
Scott Taylor: Part of the oversight from the senior leaders includes area reviews on a regular basis. Tell me, what is an area review? And what are some of the activities, responsibilities, opportunities with that?
Elder Craig C. Christensen: So at least once a year, sometimes more frequently, every area in the Church reports to what’s called the Area Committee, which is the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Presidency of the Seventy and the Presiding Bishopric. And so we all have a chance via technology to report, or in our case, in person, to all of the members of the Twelve and the Presidency of the Seventy. Then once a year, in addition to that, they visit us, and it’s usually a member of the Twelve and a member of the Presidency of the Seventy and a member of the Presiding Bishopric. And that’s really the kind of an organic, detailed level. They spend one or two days with us, and it’s really our chance to get counsel and direction, to give a stewardship report of what we’ve been working on, to make sure we’re all aligned in what the vision for the area is. So that’s how we keep senior leadership informed, is through that process of area committee reports and area reviews.
Scott Taylor: Now, for you, an area review involves people on the same Church Headquarters campus. What have area reviews been like during the pandemic? Any insight?
Elder Craig C. Christensen: Well, we’ve done a lot virtually, that’s for sure. But because we’re right here, it’s probably more interactive than other areas around the world, and in-person and reporting that, but one of the fun things about being in Utah is an area review happens every weekend, because senior leaders have grandchildren in every ward in Utah — I think, I don’t know, it seems like they do — but they’re observing. If we give some directions on how church looks and how church is carried on in Utah, it gets back to Church headquarters before I do. And it’s really fun to watch how they’ve been kind and helpful in steering to close church down, and then to start it up again, has been quite an interesting year, especially in a place as active as Utah.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Elder Christensen, tell us actually what it looks like to have to close church down for a fourth of the Church in a very small area.
Elder Craig C. Christensen: So clearly, this came upon us quickly. If you go back to the middle of March of last year. We’d never done this before, and all of a sudden, all of the restrictions started to come, and we worried about our members. And so we started working through what that looked like, how you suspend church, and then how do you provide a worship experience in homes? Conferring with senior leadership of the Church, you saw that we moved to a home-centered model where ordinances are performed by those that could in their home, and we had people visit those that didn’t have the possibility of receiving the sacrament or worshipping at home.
We tried to keep people from overreacting or under-reacting by giving some principles to our local leaders to follow. And we relied on them, there was no way to be the compliance team for an area this large. So you teach principles, and then you hope that they’re able to implement those in a safe and a wonderful way. And quite frankly, it was executed perfectly. We learned to really trust local people, local leaders, they don’t have to be directed. They were looking for some principles. But once we set the stage, it started to move rather well.
As we interact with other faith groups, they’re asking us, “Well, how do you do this?” One of the great things about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that ordinances don’t have to be performed in a church building, they can be performed by lay members of the Church in their homes. And so we didn’t skip a beat — worship continued, ordinances continued, and we started to flow forward in a home-centered model.
The blessing of having what we call home-centered, Church-supported gospel learning prior to this prepared our people for a worship experience in their home from a learning the gospel standpoint, and this just helped us become even better at that. We stood back and marveled at how suspending church happens seamlessly now. Then people get antsy, they want to meet, the people like to come together. That’s what worshiping looks like. And so all of a sudden, there are pressures being put on us to find a model where we could actually meet in church. And we’ve never really had telechurch, we’ve never had a video church, we’ve never broadcast church. And so we started looking with the First Presidency and the Twelve, under their direction, looking at models where we can have a very limited number in person and then broadcasting worship experiences to homes with the ordinances continuing at home or at church, depending on where people found themselves.
And the first time in my life, or probably ever, we’ve lived that kind of a model, but it also was magnificent. And we watched how that works. So we started to do kind of a hybrid of worshiping together and worshiping at home. And we can continue that. We’re still in that model. Now, we’re getting a few more coming to church. We can continue that model for as long as this pandemic lasts.
I’m noted of saying that church is the safest place in Utah. And we need to keep it the safest place in Utah by being respectful of not just ourselves, but those that we’re interacting with, and so we try to be cautious with masks and distancing just like everyone else, but our people are settled in the model that we’re doing.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and earlier, you inferred that, actually, this was an opportunity for people who may not have been fully participating in church service to then participate.
Elder Craig C. Christensen: Really fun to see people that have been isolated, that couldn’t get to church, being able to connect with church. That’s one of the learnings we’ve had in this, is we can reach out and find ways to connect people to church.
The other one are those that have distanced themselves from church, but now, all of a sudden their family is in their home, and they go to their family — Grandpa, Grandma, a child that hasn’t been to church for a long time — and they’re involved in the church worship experience. So our extension of church to more of our people has been expanded by this, not contracted.
Scott Taylor: So while the Utah area has taken a lead role in helping return to church or hold church in the home, it’s taken the lead from other temples throughout the world as far as the phased reopenings. I’ve noticed that temples in other areas of the Church, outside of Utah, outside of the United States, have been the first ones to reopen, the first ones to go to Phase 2 and Phase 3, the (proxy) baptisms. That leads into my next question: What can the Utah area learn from the international Church?
Elder Craig C. Christensen: The temple side is a volume question. If you look at the volume of people that are trying to attend the temples that we have in Utah, it is by a multiple of several greater than other temples around the world. So, if you’re going to try to come back in a cautious way, it makes sense to start where the volume is lower, and you can address the issues.
As we started to move temples in Utah to Phase 1 and Phase 2, and now Phase 2-B, I would go out on a Sunday with the temple president and matron and walk through how they were going to handle the volume, because it’s quite interesting to try and orchestrate that. Our people, missing the temple when they were closed down, would go and park in the parking lots of temples. If you would have driven around Utah and just watched the parking lots, people are sitting in the parking lot, just trying to be close to that temple experience. So there’s all of this desire to be in temples.
That’s the question I get the most: “When can we go? When can we go more frequently? When can we go in larger groups?” And once again, we’re being cautious. Probably the most difficult thing for the First Presidency to do would be to suspend temple worship for a season. That’s not what we’re about, and they’re most anxious to open it up. But they want to make sure it’s done in a cautious way.
As far as the gist of your question, “what are we learning from the International Church?” This goes both ways. One of the amazing questions I always ask my brethren that are serving in area presidencies around the world is, “What have you given up that you never want to bring back? And what have you learned that we need to incorporate into the Church going forward from this period of time? What learnings have we actually come to?”
That list is long and amazing. Let me give you an example: Let’s assume that you’re serving in Central America, and our members are used to coming together to coordinate missionary work, or to hold a presidency meeting, or a lot of things that require a lot of sacrifice for people to come to. They can make it to church, three buses, all the sacrifice to get to church, but to have the church we have in Utah, and overlay that on international areas, it’s just a burden on the people. With technology, that solved all of that.
Well, that works in Utah as well. We don’t have to have so many meetings and so many congregations, so many coordination meetings, to be able to carry about the business of the Church, we can focus on what matters most. So you see this great simplification happening, especially in Utah. Utah, we’ve complicated what the church experience is like, and we’re trying to learn from international areas to see what’s the essence, what’s the simplicity, what would the Lord have us do and what really matters. And to me, we don’t want to lose that. The fear is, as we come roaring back, we bring all those old traditions with us. And so we’ve gone through a process of saying, “OK, how do we message to keep this really simple?”
Sarah Jane Weaver: President Russell M. Nelson recently announced the 27th temple for Utah in Ephraim. At a time when temple worship has been limited, when actually the way we worship in our churches on Sunday has been limited, we have continued with temple building, temple groundbreakings, temple announcements. It feels like, especially in the state, you’ve participated in many temple groundbreakings this year. Talk about even at a time when temple worship is limited, how the work of temples keeps moving forward.
Elder Craig C. Christensen: Clearly, the current pandemic will pass. In temple worship, you’re always planning out. You announce a temple, and then three years later, a little less than that, perhaps sometimes a little more, it actually becomes operational. And so the First Presidency and the Twelve are still rolling forward the work of temples.
For Utah, as you’ve noticed, every conference, and now even between conferences, the President of the Church announces a temple in Utah. Well, that’s because of the faithfulness and the activity level of temple work in Utah, as compared to other places around the world. Still, in this pioneer state, we have more ordinances being performed in temples than in other areas combined. It’s just been amazing to watch that faithfulness of our Saints.
So, the Ephraim announcement in the middle of a pandemic. I was down at the press conference. I was asked the question, “Seven miles from the Manti Temple, we’re going to build another temple. How do you keep that?” And I said, “Just listen to the students at Snow College. Look at the faithful members around here. Can you imagine a student at Snow College, just like we have at other places, Rexburg or Provo or any other college, between classes, they can walk to the temple and do ordinances?” We had a luncheon with the leadership of the LDS Student Organization at Snow College after the announcement. You should have seen the excitement. So I think the prophetic vision of what that means for that area is amazing. Well, that’s what temples do: they ignite a level of activity in our people that’s just amazing to watch.
Scott Taylor: Elder Christensen, what have you learned, and what have the Latter-day Saints in the Utah area learned about the Church, their role, their opportunities during the pandemic?
Elder Craig C. Christensen: Part of the pandemic has helped us to focus on what matters most. And so the family experience has been an amazing thing to happen, but also the church experience. If you go to a baptism of a child today, we used to have videos and entertainment around it, but because of safety reasons, they’re very simple and focused on the ordinance, and what really the purpose for our meeting is. And I think the pandemic has helped all of us focus more on what matters most.
I think it also has accentuated how we serve one another. It’s really interesting. We couldn’t interact, and we typically see ministering as an interaction — we visit our neighbors, or we take food in or whatever the interaction is, and those things were restricted; but our concern, and our worry about who’s around us and how they’re doing was accentuated. So there was an outreach that we’ve never seen, in my experience, among members of the Church reaching out to everyone, everyone that’s close to them.
It’s also given us a chance to serve, unconditionally, without assignment, but this desire to serve … One of the great examples, if you remember, the state of Utah, and the health care facilities when they couldn’t have masks and gowns and personal safety attire, they asked us to participate in producing masks. And I remember those discussions with the Relief Society presidency of the Church and the area presidency (about) how do we do this. They were worried about how many people would actually do this. We set a goal of 6 million, we thought it would take several months. It took about two weeks, and people just rallied to the support.
If you remember, in the midst of this, we had wind storms and earthquakes and all kinds of things going on. I remember getting a call to see if we could help remove the wood that was laying all over Salt Lake City. And while others were trying to get organized, because we have an organization, all of a sudden, the Church members stepped in. And within a matter of two or three days, we cleaned up massive amounts of wood. And the blessing of that is, we shipped it to the Navajo Nation because they needed the wood. And so we were able to serve twice: Help clean up the city and help ship to people in need that would need the wood for their own survival.
So you see some, you know, you could go to the real personal. What did we see? Fathers and mothers reaching out to family members that were suffering, and we kind of look at the blessings. We’ve lost people. We’ve lost Saints, we’ve had tragedy, and you can’t — to not be able to have a funeral service or mourn with those that are mourning, have been really difficult times. But I’ve also seen this personal outreach, sincere outreach to help those that are suffering and going through these hard times. All of those things combined — this has not been a good time, this has not been a happy time because it is difficult. But everyone learned something from this that will bless us in years to come.
Scott Taylor: Let me ask you a concluding question, and Sarah often concludes her podcast asking the guest to share what they know now. My question to you would be, and include your testimony with it, but what do you know now about Church areas, and specifically, how the Utah Area blesses and benefits from the international Church?
Elder Craig C. Christensen: Thank you for that question, Scott. I’ve been serving in the Utah Area six years: Three as a member of the presidency, and three as the president. When I received this assignment, my companions kind of worried about it, because it’s a very active area, it takes a lot of energy and effort to serve in this way in this area. And I focused in on the issues. But what I learned was all the blessings. And so the conversations in the first part were “Where are the problems we have to address?” And in the last two or three years, we’ve just stood back and marveled at the level of faithfulness and dedication of the Saints, the leadership ability that’s here, the rising generation that’s coming after multiple generations of members of the Church. We look past some of the outlying issues and focus on the strength of the Church here in this great state.
Well, we have an increasing diversity, which is an amazing thing. We have an influx of those not of our faith, which is rich and amazing. And so I think the future of the Church in Utah becomes even more important as we reach out and build relationships with community members, with those not of our faith. We have the ability to shape what’s great about Utah in a bigger way going forward than we have in the past. We’ve been too isolated, if you will, too much member centric. And I think opportunities are happening in Utah that are just blessing all of us. And we’re all learning more and more. This is the mission field. And people think well, are there missionaries in Utah? We have more missionaries in Utah than any other area of the Church. It’s been amazing to watch what’s happening in the work here in Utah.
The blessing of serving here has been life-changing for me. It has pressed us, our presidency, to work harder and do more than we could do otherwise. But then the spiritual blessings that come with that, the insights, the inspiration, the interaction with senior leaders as we try and do everything they ask of us, it’s been a really fulfilling assignment. As they made the changes, the new area president, everyone started issuing condolences, like, “You’ve got the hardest job in the Church.” And I put my arm around him and said, “Now, you’ve got the best job in the Church. This is an amazing place to serve.”
You know, we’re all trying to serve each other in the best way we can. And my experience is that God teaches us to love Him and love others, and I think it’s in that order. And so as we all dedicate our lives, I have a deep testimony of the Savior. I have a deep testimony of our Heavenly Father. I love to be in this service. It’s one of the most amazing parts of my life, and I mostly love serving and ministering to those around me. And I think that’s really the opportunity we all have of being members, or those close enough to the Church, to see the benefit of the Church in the area. And I share that with you in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor, Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you’ve learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast, and if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer KellieAnn Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.